Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Sudeley, Gloucestershire


The small church of St Mary, Sudeley is unusual in that it is both a parish church and the chapel of nearby Sudeley Castle. It’s an easy walk from where we live and from where the Resident Wise Woman grew up, and partly as a result of that, we hardly ever visit the historic castle, let alone its little church. In fact until the other day, the last time I set foot inside the church was in September 1985 when the Resident Wise Woman and I were married. It was wonderful to tie the knot in such beautiful and historic surroundings, pleasant for guests to be able to take a look at the gardens on the way in and out, and delightful to have the wedding reception in the castle afterwards.*

The beauty of the place is obvious enough, I hope, from my photograph, and the architecture – standard late-medieval-style window tracery with the added touch of a delightful bell turret corbelled out so that it overhangs the west front slightly – clear too. The history is that the shaping force behind the church was Ralph Boteler†, (c. 1394–1473), 1st Baron Sudeley and Lord High Treasurer of England under Henry VI. He rebuilt the castle and the nearby church, both of which owe much of their architectural character to him, although both were severely damaged during the English Civil Wars. After a period of neglect and dereliction, both castle and church were restored for the Dent family, who bought the castle in the 19th century and employed Sir George Gilbert Scott and his master perspectivist (later an independent architect) John Drayton Wyatt to undertake the restoration.¶

It’s thought that Scott and Wyatt took the church back to very close to its 15th-century appearance externally, renewing the tracery of the windows, preserving or recarving the gargoyles and other carvings, and restoring the bell turret. The church was refitted inside, with new woodwork and stained glass, and Wyatt designed a new tomb to house the remains of Katherine Parr, the last queen of Henry VIII – she lived at the castle after she married its then owner, Thomas Seymour, after Henry’s death. The result is a delightful little church which could not have been better for our small wedding.

Another of Scott and Wyatt’s additions was what I assume to be an underfloor heating system, with warm air emerging through grilles in the floor. As we left the building the other day, one of us stepped on the grille by the door and it made a loud clanking noise. Straight away, I was back in 1985, waiting for the bride to arrive. Suddenly, the silence was broken by a clank, and she and her father made their way up the nave towards where I and my best man waited. Vows, music (Thomas Arne, Henry Purcell), speeches, cake, and the chance to talk to our closest friends and relatives ensued: much of this is all a blur now. But I do remember smiling a lot. I’ve smiled a lot since.

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* Back in the 1980s, weddings in country houses and castles were not the big business they are now. The church was not licensed for weddings when we got married and I had to go to a Church of England office next to Westminster Abbey and swear oaths to the effect that I was who I said I was, which allowed me to obtain an elaborate ‘special licence’ for the occasion. Today, people get married in the castle often, although I’m not sure that, even now, church weddings take place here. ‘I think it’s mostly blessings,’ a guide said, when we looked around the castle.

† Usually pronounced ‘Rafe Butler’. He was ‘one of a line of rather distinguished butlers,’ as my school history teacher said, even longer ago than the events I’m recalling here.

¶ Wyatt and Scott also designed a school and almshouses in nearby Winchcombe, which were funded by Emma Dent, then owner of the castle.


George said...

The Roman Catholic church wants weddings celebrated in a parish church. I did notice that a chapel at a nearby university was approved for weddings, but I think that one party had to be a student or recent graduate. I know that some friends of my son wanted to be married at an abbey here, and had to settle for a wedding in his parish church with one of the monks as celebrant.

Before I was married, I shared a house with a Boteler, but he did not pronounce it "Butler".

Philip Wilkinson said...

George: Thank you! Interesting about the pronunciation of 'Boteler'. Historians I've spoken to think that back in the 15th century it was just another way of writing 'Butler' and was therefore pronounced as in the latter name. But of course none of us know for sure how the name was pronounced in the 15th century. A big part of a literal butler's job in the Middle Ages was looking after the bottles (particularly the ones filled with wine), so it works either way.